Torrenting is the next front in battles over copyright and illegal file sharing, but technology stays one step ahead with constant mutations.
Have you ever downloaded a movie or song without paying? For many people, especially the younger demographic, the answer is yes. Nearly as many people watched the popular HBO show “Game of Thrones” via illegal downloading as they did with paid subscriptions to the premium cable channel, illustrating this isn’t a few people in the backs of movie theaters with handheld cameras.
This is verging on a truly disruptive social change impacting the entertainment industry. The cutthroat fight for illegal downloads is raging, and shaping how people think about paying for entertainment.
The Rise of Torrenting
People download movies, music, games, programs, photos and pornography of all stripes in massive quantities, and they often use torrents to get their entertainment of choice. Torrenting is a form of peer-to-peer file sharing, which is a means of sharing files among different people on the Internet.
By conservative estimates, popular file sharing protocol BitTorrent accounts for between 20 and 35 percent of all Web traffic. Sites connecting users to torrents enjoy enormous success, with behemoth torrent center The Pirate Bay clocking in as the 73th most trafficked website in the world.
Some researchers believe the figures are vastly overblown, but the lawmakers who proposed SOPA and PIPA claimed online piracy costs the music and movie industries between $200 and $250 billion dollars, which would put an enormous dent in their bottom lines. Even if these figures are just a ballpark, they point to the big losses for the media industry over illegal downloading and promise to only get bigger.
The Battle Over Downloading
Pirating is big business, and the RIAA, MPAA and other copyright protection groups are waging an all-out knockdown battle to stem peer-to-peer file sharing, or P2P, with both sides escalating the fight into increasingly sophisticated territory. While it’s highly unlikely torrenting will stop, there may be some serious casualties along the way.
P2P entered mainstream consciousness with Napster, an extremely popular service in the 1990s that made it easy for people to share copies of music and movies with friends. Napster’s reign didn’t last long, though, since by 2001 the RIAA’s legal threats successfully convinced the service to stop allowing free downloads of copyrighted material.
Just because Napster failed didn’t mean file sharing was over, though — copycat sites like Kazaa emerged to fill its shoes. Their owners also faced initial opposition from the RIAA, but lawsuits rulings in favor of Kazaa changed things. Courts decided the people running Kazaa and other sites were not responsible for what users chose to share with each other. These legal decisions placed the blame on the individual users instead of the services, which shifted the focus away from the people managing these sites to the people sharing content, who themselves faced nasty fines for downloading music.
Sometimes these fines verged on truly absurd: for instance, one woman was fined $1.9 million for downloading 24 songs, since a federal judge found her guilty of illegally downloading them. Since the mid-2000s, the RIAA moved away from charging individuals, since these types of lawsuit did little to help their cause with the public, but the PR damage done by these extreme fees lingers.
Other organizations, like the U.S. Copyright Group, continue to go after individual downloaders in court, taking legal action against over 50,000 U.S. citizens for downloading “The Hurt Locker,” for example.
Websites like Kazaa didn’t keep their user bases for two reasons: one, people grew concerned they would be slapped with outrageous fines, and two, sharing services became notorious for infecting computers with viruses. Also, the move many of these services made to subscription models resulting in a decrease in popularity.
So today, BitTorrent and other torrent services rose up to represent the next generation of sharing, since they are regarded as safe from viruses and because it is harder for organizations like the U.S. Copyright Group to fine torrent users.
How Torrents Are Mutating to Fight Back
Instead of sharing entire files, torrenting works by taking small parts of files from many users, which increases the speed of download. This means torrenting is essentially a cooperative exercise, relying on many users contributing small parts of a file into a larger “swarm.”
This does not mean that users are completely protected from the ire of copyright protectors, including the FBI and RIAA. Torrent files people store on their computers can contain enough information to identify them, but it’s more difficult since they are not distributing the whole file.
Still, to further protect users and themselves, huge torrenting sites like The Pirate Bay are moving away from torrenting in its traditional form and devising clever ways to giver users what they want with less risks.
Instead of sharing traditional torrents, The Pirate Bay is now hosting magnet links instead, which are harder to track and reduce risks for users getting caught. Magnet links are superior to traditional torrents because traditional torrent files contain a tracking URL, whereas magnet links lack tracking components and keep users more anonymized.
The move from traditional torrents to magnet links illustrates one way in which copyright groups are making an impact, since they spur torrenting websites to change the fundamentals of the technology they use to share. This also shows how resourceful these sites are in skirting attacks from authorities: for every roadblock authorities put up, file sharing enthusiasts are several steps ahead.
A Digital Standoff
The Pirate Bay recently moved its operation to a variety of cloud service providers to avoid attempts to shut it down. This move, coupled with the switch to magnet links instead of traditional torrents, will make it more difficult to shut down. These changes occurred after serious threats to its existence — at one point last year, several international authorities won an injunction, which blocked traffic to the site. But, administrators managed to keep the code necessary to create infinite numbers of spin-off sites, so the injunction failed to stymie downloading in any substantive way.
Now users worried about losing The Pirate Bay can actually download an entire copy of the website for 90-megabytes, underlining how gung-ho torrenting fans are about preserving their downloading power.
No End in Sight for File Sharing
While the U.S. demonstrated how technologically sophisticated it can be with the release of the unparalleled Flame and Stuxnet viruses, groups like the FBI, RIAA and MPAA are often several steps behind the sites they are trying to shut down. As long as tech-savvy people’s goodwill is on the side of torrenting sites, there will be solutions to the roadblocks set up by government agencies. Authorities trying to prevent illegal sharing and downloading fans will continue to push against each other, urging each other forward in a game of cat and mouse.
Still, the culture of file sharing won’t be wiped out or even endangered. As younger generations grow up, their ideas of music as property, which is different from earlier generations, will move into the mainstream. Younger demographics are less concerned with ownership and more concerned with access, which explains the rise of streaming music services like Spotify.
While this shift away from the idea of profiting from entertainment and art can put musicians in a difficult position, downloading defenders tend to cast movie studios and music labels as the losers rather than artists.
Movie studios and record labels have not developed their own alternative options for accessing Internet files in response to rising illegal downloads, instead partnering with tech companies. It is unlikely music labels would have acquiesced to Steve Jobs’ demands for their content on iTunes without Napster first eviscerating their sales model. Likewise, the popularity of downloading television shows undoubtedly left television stations more inclined to work out content licensing arrangements with Netflix and Hulu.
But licensing agreements often add viewer windows or other methods that treat online outlets as third-class, frustrating users and driving them to torrenting. Game of Thrones is a popular torrent, for instance, because HBO only allows it to be streamed for its subscribers via its HBO Go offering.
File sharing remains popular even as legal services like Netflix and Amazon offer alternative, legal means for obtaining digital copies of entertainment, so this cultural debate is still evolving, though it is often confusing for consumers to navigate. And since illegal downloading spurred the rise of legal downloading, this clash between file sharing fans, entertainment industry and copyright protection groups may continue to produce new forms of consumption and encourage innovation. ♦
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